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Health care workers run a temporary ward dedicated to the treatment of possible COVID-19 patients at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, in Pretoria, on Jan. 11, 2021.PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP/Getty Images

Even after securing a new supply of vaccines this week, Africa is still far behind its vaccine goals and could be forced to live with the pandemic for another two years, officials say.

The African Union estimates the continent will need 1.5 billion vaccine doses, enough to protect 60 per cent of its population from COVID-19 and achieve a minimum level of population immunity. But so far it has deals with suppliers for only 870 million doses.

Matshidiso Moeti, the Africa director for the World Health Organization, said the global distribution of vaccines has been inequitable and that Africa must “manage its disappointment” at seeing wealthy countries launch their immunization programs as much as two months before the first doses are expected to reach Africa.

The vaccines will not be a “magic bullet” for the continent, so it must continue with basic precautions such as masks and physical distancing, Dr. Moeti told a briefing Thursday.

The earliest vaccine distribution in African countries is expected to be in February or March, but a significant rollout is not likely until the middle of the year, despite the urgent need on a continent that has already suffered more than 75,000 deaths and more than 3.1 million cases.

“Speed is of the essence now,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a briefing Thursday. “We cannot wait. This is not a polio or measles vaccination. We have to do this quick. Our economies are down. Our people are dying.”

The second wave of the pandemic has been devastating for the continent. In the week of Jan. 4 to 10, the number of confirmed cases jumped 32 per cent and deaths increased 21 per cent over the previous week, according to Africa CDC data.

Southern Africa has been hit particularly hard. In Malawi, two cabinet ministers died from COVID-19 on the same day this week. In South Africa, hospitals in several provinces are running at full capacity, with sick people sometimes turned away and unable to find care.

The African Union announced Wednesday night that it had secured 270 million vaccine doses from three suppliers, in addition to the 600 million it expects to receive from the COVAX program this year.

Until now, Africa had largely been counting on COVAX for its vaccine supplies. The program, funded by higher-income countries including Canada, aims to provide affordable vaccines around the world. But it has still not announced a date for the launch of its vaccine distribution.

For the first time, African leaders are starting to express their frustration with COVAX and its slow rollout.

“While the COVAX initiative is vital to Africa’s response, the African Union is concerned that the COVAX volumes to be released between February and June may not extend beyond the needs of front-line health care workers, and may thus not be enough to contain the ever-increasing toll of the pandemic in Africa,” said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chair of the African Union, in a statement Wednesday night.

“Another challenge is that the target of 600 million doses from COVAX will cover only about 300 million people across the African continent, which is only about 20 per cent of the population,” he added.

To supplement the COVAX vaccines, he said, the African Union has secured a provisional supply of 270 million doses from AstraZeneca (produced by the Serum Institute of India), Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson.

Mr. Ramaphosa gave no details on specific amounts from each supplier – a crucial question in determining coverage of the population, as all the vaccines except for Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses.

“All 270 million vaccine doses will be made available this year, with at least 50 million being available for the crucial period of April to June, 2021,” he said.

To help finance the vaccines, Cairo-based Afreximbank will provide up to US$2-billion in guarantees to the manufacturers on behalf of African governments, while the World Bank could provide as much as US$5-billion in further financing, Mr. Ramaphosa said.

Africa will continue to seek other suppliers, he said. “It is hoped that donors will step up further and ensure that more vaccines are provided through COVAX, as any new debt burden on member states is difficult in the long term,” he added.

“Given the virulent nature of the COVID pandemic, it is clear that a threat to one nation and continent is a threat to all. To successfully eradicate the global threat of the disease, it is critical that a majority of citizens of all nations get urgent and equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible.”

Canada has been criticized by health advocacy groups for its decision to secure as many as 414 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in advance orders – five times more than it needs for its population. The federal government has promised to donate its surplus doses to COVAX but has not said when it might do this, calling it a “hypothetical” question.

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